Commentary: For the sake of unity
- Friday, April 30, 2004
For the sake of unity
A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. A. William "Bill" Martin*
Talk of schism in the United Methodist Church has increased,
following the recent trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann in the Pacific
Northwest Annual Conference.
But there is a way to preserve unity for the foreseeable future, if
the General Conference of 2004 is willing to make a few changes in
the 2004 Book of Discipline.
If enough delegates can agree to these changes (and of course the
balance of power rests with the "moderate" voters), then the
*Allow for a cooling-off period about a volatile issue.
*End almost all church trials over questions related to ordination
and holy unions.
*Affirm that West Coast annual conferences and similarly minded
conferences, as well as local congregations such as Glide Memorial in
San Francisco, are vital parts of the United Methodist communion.
*Guarantee central conferences (the church's regional units in
Africa, Asia and Europe) that they need not fear changing mores and
moral standards in the United States.
*Allow people entering the ministry to be true to their convictions
about homosexuality, whatever they have come to believe, since they
will be able to relate to an annual conference where they will feel
*Open the door for ministers who feel isolated where they are because
of their beliefs about homosexuality to transfer to conferences where
their concept of ministry is affirmed.
*Encourage open dialogue in those annual conferences where a variety
of beliefs exist about homosexuality.
The first change, primarily symbolic, would be to replace the
language condemning "the practice of homosexuality" in the nonbinding
Social Principles (Paragraph 161.G) with a statement that the church
is not of one mind on this issue.
Among the many petitions along this line, the one from the California-
Pacific Annual Conference (40078) is noteworthy for its spirit of
respect for divergent opinion. While removing the condemnatory
language, it maintains "the right of families and churches to offer
renewal through the transformation of sexual identity," no small
concession when one remembers that many gay persons and their friends
view transforming ministries as of little or no value.
At the level of church law, delegates will need to give annual
conferences the final say on matters of ordination and same-sex
In the former area, it is a matter of extending a principle that
already exists to include the final decision on ordaining gay or
lesbian or transgender clergy. Two petitions open the door for
modifying Paragraph 304.3 along these lines (40701 and 40077). In the
latter area, the Troy Conference has proposed qualifying the
prohibition against "(c)eremonies that celebrate homosexual unions"
(Paragraph 332.6) by adding "except within annual conferences that
have authorized such ceremonies" (Petition 41082).
Without some kind of accommodation along these or similar lines, the
United Methodist Church will, it seems likely, continue to make
national and international headlines over the next four years with
one high-profile church trial after another. But if we place many of
the concerns related to homosexuality on the backburner for a while,
recognizing that sincere Christians disagree on this issue, then
there is a chance that our church might merit an occasional news
report about something else - like its witness on poverty and world
peace or perhaps its rapid growth in some parts of the world. We
could even do worse than a complete absence of headlines for a while!
*Martin is a retired elder in the Arkansas Annual Conference and the
W. Martin Jr. professor of religion emeritus at Oklahoma City